Shark attack drives swimmer

Before Achmat Hassiem hops onto the Paralympic starting blocks in Rio, he'll close his eyes and think of Scarlet.

She's the 16-foot great white shark that took his leg but not his dreams, and launched him on an illustrious career path that earned him an award from the United Nations.

"It's my little way to get my adrenalin pumping. When I get behind the blocks, I imagine I'm in the ocean, and this massive great white is in the water, and she's saying 'Hey Achmat, I'm right behind you. I'm coming for you,'" Hassiem says of the great beast he named Scarlet — more out of reverence than rage.

"Then I swim as hard as I can to get away from her. Hopefully, I can get away from her at gold-medal pace."

The Paralympic bronze medallist will swim the 100-metre butterfly on Monday, and the 100 freestyle on Tuesday, nearly a decade to the day after his shark attack in False Bay, off the shores of Cape Town's Muizenberg Beach.

Hassiem was a semi-professional soccer goalkeeper, and was participating in a lifeguard drill that morning with his younger brother Tariq. The two were treading water when Hassiem spotted the shark's telltale grey fin slicing through the water toward his brother.

Hassiem slapped the water's surface to distract it, and as Tariq was pulled to safety by the lifeguards in the rescue boat, the shark turned.

"The most incredible thing I remember is seeing the power of the tail. It was kicking its tail to turn around, using that force to drive itself forward toward me," Hassiem said.

The shark's massive jaws came down on his right leg, and she started to drag him under.

"The worst part was listening to the sound of the rescue boat disappearing in the background as I was pulled underneath the water. I thought to myself, 'With that sound goes all hope,'" Hassiem, now 34, said through his distinct South African accent.

"I thought I was going to drown, my lungs felt like they were going to explode. With my last breath, I decided to fight back, I started hitting the shark with my hands and kicking it with my free leg.

"Eventually the shark pulled away and that's when I heard snap-crackle-pop, and boom, my leg broke in half."

More Rio 2016 articles


Rio 2016 Medal Count
1United States463738121
3Great Britain27231767


Previous Stories


Castanet Proud Member of RTNDA Canada